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A Brief History of Lead Regulation

motor fuel with lead

In a surprising move last week, the Environmental Protection Agency sided with science, environmentalists, and America’s children. It has been 30 years since the United States saw a reduction in lead emissions standards, but on October 15, EPA reduced the limits from 1.5 micrograms per cubic meter to 0.15. The move will force smelters, metal mines, and waste incinerators to reduce their emissions of the toxic metal. Since 1990, over 6,000 studies have confirmed the dangerous effects of lead, especially on children, as it lowers their IQ and damages learning and memory abilities. In adults, lead can cause brain, kidney, and cardiovascular damage.

The move garnered praise from bloggers at The Pump Handle and Switchboard, usual critics of the Bush administration’s environmental policy. But even with the new limits, the number of emissions monitoring stations has dropped from 800 in 1980 to around 130 stations currently, according to both blogs. The EPA plans to add or relocate 236 monitoring sites to meet requirements, still less than half of the previous number. Additionally, polluters will not need to comply with the new .15 μg/cubic meter standards until 2017. Gina Solomon at Switchboard writes: “That’s too late! We’ve already waited 30 years for this new lead standard, and it’s crazy to wait almost 10 more years for it to come into effect.”

But the history of lead in human civilization goes back even further. There have been several phases in the regulation of lead-based paint and leaded gasoline, taking nearly a century for public policy to catch up with scientific warnings. David Michaels, in his book, Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health, describes the history of the battle between the paint and gas industry’s PR machines and public health advocates and environmentalists. Here’s a timeline of what’s happened in the United States over the past 100 years:

1900s: Lead was regarded as a highly toxic chemical, with lead-based paint regarded as the most identifiable hazard. If a child ate paint chips, people recognized it could cause seizure, coma, and death. If it didn’t traumatically harm the child, he or she may have learning and behavioral disabilities.

1922: Lead was first introduce into gasoline, immediately drawing headlines concerning public health. The form of lead in gasoline was known as tetraethyl lead and it raised the octane level of gasoline, resulting in “premium” gas for high-performance engines.

1924: Five workers at a New Jersey plant died, with four of them going “insane” before their death. The New York Times (subscription) covered the story, and New York City, Philadelphia, and other jurisdictions banned the sale of leaded gasoline.

1930s: The industries rejected scientific evidence, claiming there was no proof of causation and tried to blame the children and families as being irresponsible for allowing children to eat the paint chips, claiming that they were “sub-normal to start with.”

1965: A geochemist named Clair Patterson in Greenland brought the airborne lead issue into American consciousness. Until then, industry experts claimed only workers were at risk for lead poisoning, and that because lead has always been naturally in the air, it must be safe. Using ice core samples, Patterson found that higher levels of lead existed in recent samples than older ice. He further concluded that the amount of lead Americans had in their blood was 100 times greater than natural levels.

1970: Nixon signed the Clean Air Act of 1970 into law on December 31st, and the Environmental Protection Agency, formed on December 2, had a task worth attacking. “Year of the Environment came to an end on an extremely upbeat note with the signing of a major piece of environmental legislation. The Clean Air Act (CAA) of 1970 was the perfect bookend to balance the National Environmental Policy Act the President had signed with such a flourish on New Year’s Day,” states the EPA. Along with lead, the EPA was required to lower emissions of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides by 90 percent in only a few years.

1971: President Richard Nixon signed the Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act, which restricted the lead content in paint used in housing built with federal dollars and provided funds for states to reduce the amount of lead in paint. Subsequent legislation created the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which effectively banned leaded paint in 1976.

1984: The U.S. Senate considered banning the use of lead in gasoline, with Vernon Houk, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Center for Environmental Heath, reporting that “if no lead had been allowed in gasoline since 1977, there would have been approximately 80 percent fewer children identified with lead toxicity.”

1985: The EPA discussed a total ban on leaded gasoline by 1988.

1990: In amendments to the Clean Air Act, lead was banned from gasoline. The measures would take effect in 1995, giving gasoline companies five more years to completely phase out lead.

2002: According to a study, levels of lead found in human blood were reduced more than 80 percent from 1976 to 1999 in American children one to five years old, and these children had IQs that were, on average, 2.2-4.7 points higher than comparable groups in the 1970s. In terms of economic impact, the authors estimate that each IQ point raises worker productivity 1.76-2.38 percent. The estimated economic benefit for each year’s newborns ranges from $110 billion to $319 billion.

2008: EPA tightens air emission rules for lead, requiring industries to reduce levels to .15 μg/cubic meter. The new standard is 10 times greater than previous requirements set 30 years ago.

2013: States are required to submit state implementation plans outlining how they will reduce pollution to meet the standards no later than June.

2017: States are required to meet the new standards no later than January.

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